Growing acceptance of female pastors is one of the positive Mennonite trends of the past half century. On July 27, Mennonite Church USA’s Western District Conference — a leader in gender equality — honored trailblazing women during a seminar of its annual assembly at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.
More than 40 years ago, Western District played a key role in breaking the Mennonite stained-glass ceiling. Two of the first three women ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church — Marilyn Miller in 1976 and Rosie Epp in 1979 — were ordained in Western District. (The third was Anne Neufeld Rupp by Central District Conference in 1976.) Today, 40 of Western District’s 85 active pastors are women.
For those who find a woman in the pulpit unremarkable, it’s easy to forget how new this is — recent enough that one of the 1970s pioneers, Epp, is still leading a congregation, Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing, Kan.
Long ago, Epp said, she “quit arguing about Scripture” and let her ministry speak for itself. When she was serving an interim pastorate in Pennsylvania, one member said a woman shouldn’t go farther forward than the front pew unless she was the choir director. But when Epp’s term of ministry was over, the member apologized for opposing her. As Epp remembers it, he said: “You know I don’t think women should be in pastoral ministry, but this woman should be.”
Lois Y. Barrett, ordained in Western District in 1985 and later a professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, observed the same paradox — that a person opposed to the idea of a female pastor might accept the reality of one. When a member of her congregation, Mennonite Church of the Servant in Wichita, Kan., asked a critic of women in pastoral ministry, “Should we fire Lois?,” the critic quickly replied, “Oh, no!”
Barrett noted that while a lot of things have changed for the better since the 1970s, unfair standards for female leaders — secular or religious — haven’t. Behavior that’s considered assertive for a man is aggressive for a woman. Women are judged excessively on their appearance. Men are expected to be competent; women need to be both competent and likable. They’re told they ought to smile more.
Marilyn Miller, ordained in 1976 in Arvada, Colo., wanted to be a pastor since she was a girl but didn’t think it was possible. “I thought I would marry one,” Miller said. She told the seminar audience that she “would like to model what Western District did for me. They took the risk to let me do what others thought I shouldn’t do. I like the definition of love as helping the other person be all your Creator designed you to be.”
Barrett and Dorothy Nickel Friesen, who was ordained in 1985 and later became the conference minister of Western District, are editing a book, to be published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies in 2020, on Mennonite women in ministry. The working title is Proclaiming the Good News: Mennonite Women’s Voices, 1972-2006.
While the General Conference Mennonite Church moved faster to accept greater numbers of female pastors, the Mennonite Church ordained a woman first: Emma Richards, at Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Church in 1973.
Nickel Friesen — whose 2018 memoir, The Pastor Wears a Skirt, tells of her own groundbreaking experiences in church leadership — noted surveys that have measured the growing acceptance of women pastors. A 1972 study of the MC, GCMC, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ and Evangelical Mennonite Church (now the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches) found 17 percent favored the ordination of women. A 2006 survey of MC USA found 67 percent in favor. Due to conservative withdrawals since then, the percentage probably is higher today.
Yet among North American Mennonites generally, gender equality in pastoral ministry remains the exception. Conservative and Plain groups reserve the pulpit for men. At a study conference in January, members of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches discussed the biblical arguments for and against their denomination’s ban on female lead pastors but reached no agreement for change. (Many subscribe to complementarianism, a doctrine about women having different roles in church and family from men.)
And MC USA still has work to do: In the 2006 survey, 58 percent of respondents said they preferred a man as lead pastor.
To a rising generation that expects gender equality, the church of the 1970s might seem ancient in its attitudes about women’s roles. But four decades later, barriers remain to be broken, and Epp’s advice is far from out of date: “Be courageous. If you hear the call, listen to it. And don’t give up.” Find a church that won’t limit your opportunities to serve God.